MCLA Boasts New Science Center on First Day of Classes

Sep 4, 2013

MCLA's new science center's roof has solar panels, plant beds, and a wind turbine will also be added.
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
The science center also features an "outdoor classroom" with a blackboard.
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
The building boasts large windows with wires inside them detecting sunlight and adjusting electrical light usage accordingly.
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

With college students across the country back on campus, those at a western Massachusetts school are heading into brand new classrooms.

As classes begin, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts is boasting a brand new science center on its campus in North Adams. The four-story, 65,000 square foot building cost more than $30 million, taking just about a year to build. The center will be the home of the chemistry, biology, physics, psychology, and environmental studies departments. Jim Stakenas is the college’s Vice President of Administration and Finance.

“You notice that the drying rack has a drain tube that comes into the sink,” Stakenas said. “They thought of everything.”

Along with the typical lecture hall, each floor includes private study spaces and state-of-the-art labs complete with research and testing equipment accessible to those in wheelchairs. Stakenas says the building was designed so people can see science in action, complete with an outdoor circular classroom with rock benches and a blackboard.

“We have windows in every classroom,” he said. “We have student study spaces with big white boards and windows into that world. So people walking through the building can see how science is being taught and how science is being learned. We’re hoping even through osmosis to get excited about sciences, that happens when someone comes into the building.”

As a science center, the building also features innovative energy saving technology. The roof includes solar panels, two greenhouses, and plant beds that help insulate the building. A wind turbine also will be added. Wires in the windows detect sunlight to automatically control room lighting, while disposed chemicals will be neutralized in an underground limestone pit. Also, signs outside each lab notify first responders of what chemicals are being used in the case of an emergency. Stakenas says students will be able to access more than 700 data points to monitor the building’s energy use.

“We can track how this building is being more efficient than a building without new windows or an older building with new windows because we have data points in all our buildings on campus,” Stakenas said. “We can make this data available to our students for research. This system that we’re tracking data on, in our "Science on Display" attitude about the building, was put together by our computer science students. So it’s really a big community effort.”

Funding for the project came from state grants in 2008. Stakenas says at that time, the campus’ current science facilities were four decades old, and renovating them would have been more expensive than creating a new building. College President Mary Grant says before the new center, the science departments were divided between two buildings, making interdisciplinary study difficult.

“Faculty members have independent research space, so they can open that research space up to students in a more hands on basis,” said Grant.

The center also allowed the college to reinstate its chemistry program as a major, having been a minor in the past. Dr. Ann Billetz chairs the Biology Department and is the Director of Undergraduate Research at MCLA. She says the building will allow students to learn directly from faculty in a more informal setting.

“There are areas where we can say ‘Okay here, I didn’t understand this, this morning, but let’s go through it one more time and let’s figure this out,” Billetz said. “People are often more comfortable doing it in those one-on-one interactions, than raising your hand in class and saying ‘I don’t get this.”

Grant says the center will serve more than just MCLA students and faculty. The facility and its equipment, like the Berkshire STEM Pipeline’s Portable Planetarium, will be available to local businesses, high schools, and the other three area colleges.

“It’s about providing a place that where we will attract students from across Massachusetts and beyond who will come here and then maybe they’ll want to stay here after graduation and contribute to this incredible region that we all call home,” said Grant.

The former science building, Bowman Hall, will now host the math and computer science departments as well as offer additional space for the physics program. Using funding from the same state grant, the design phase for that building is complete and construction plans are being finalized. The new science center is open for the first day of classes as workers complete the finishing touches. The official ribbon cutting will be October 4.